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Poverty alleviation tackles new goals in new era

ZHANG JIANHUA | 2020-01-16
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
Farmers harvest Chinese chives at a planting base in Puding County, Guizhou Province. Photo: CHINA DAILY
 

 

Over the past 70 years, China has been committed to promoting production and reducing poverty. Since the reform and opening up, poverty reduction efforts have undergone several strategic adjustments in terms of the object of poverty alleviation, poverty alleviation standards, and policies. At the turn of the 21st century, poverty alleviation policy first shifted focus from areas to counties, and then to villages, and finally to targeted households. 
 
According to the latest national anti-poverty work conference in December, “over 10 million people are estimated to have been lifted out of poverty in 2019, while some 340 counties have rid themselves of the label of being impoverished,” laying a solid foundation for victory against poverty in 2020.
 
 
Major policy changes
Between 1949 and 1978, rural China was in a state of universal poverty, and antipoverty work at this period was mainly to ensure the most basic needs in food and clothing for the poor through financial subsidies or handouts of basic necessities. 
 
Since the reform and opening up in 1978, the Chinese government has carried out structural reform to reduce poverty. Specifically, the household contract responsibility system replaced the collective management system of the people’s commune, giving peasants’ contractual rights to rural land and encouraging their enthusiasm for labor, thus greatly improving the land’s output and increasing farmers’ income. In the mid-1980s, the rapid rise of township enterprises in rural China broke the practice of investment and employment focused solely in the farming sector and improved the rural economic structure.
 
In 1986, the government established a special antipoverty organization, the State Council Leading Group on Economic Development in Poor Areas, later renamed the State Council Leading Group on Poverty Alleviation and Development in 1993, to further reduce poverty, which was a major move in China’s antipoverty effort.
 
Thanks to the efforts of national and local governments, the number of people living on less than the national poverty line dropped to 80 million in 1993. Then, China implemented a National Eight-Seven Poverty Alleviation Plan, which listed 592 impoverished counties and vowed to meet the food and clothing needs of the remaining poor. By 2000, China’s rural poor population dropped to 32 million, with the incidence of poverty at 3.5%.
 
In 2001, China implemented the Outline for Development-Oriented Poverty Reduction for China’s Rural Areas (2001–2010), signaling the shift of the focus of poverty alleviation from the county to the village level. About 148,000 poor villages were identified based on production, living conditions, and farmers’ health and education levels. In addition, a minimum standard of living wefare system was established for the poor without work or who had lost the ability to work, gradually forming the pattern of “welfare to ensure survival, poverty alleviation for promoting development.” 
 
In 2011, China implemented the new Outline for Development-Oriented Poverty Alleviation for China’s Rural Areas (2011–2020), delimiting 14 contiguous poor areas with special difficulties and putting these areas as the main battlefield for poverty alleviation efforts. The outline put forward targets for ensuring the rural poor had access to food, clothing, compulsory education, basic medical care and housing security by 2020.
 
Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping put forward a series of new ideas and requirements for poverty alleviation. To help the remaining poor shake off poverty by 2020 as scheduled, China has implemented a targeted poverty alleviation strategy since 2013.
 
From 2011 onward, the poverty alleviation effort has been characterized by the combination of regional development strategy and targeted household poverty alleviation. Local governments have been required to establish accurate identification mechanisms and set up electronic archives for poor villages and households to ensure effective support to the real poor. The annual per capita net income of farmers of 2,300 yuan (at 2010 constant prices) has become the new national poverty line, and it has included more low-income people in poverty alleviation.
 
 
Chinese experience for the world
Targeted poverty alleviation is a practical innovation based on China’s own development and institutional advantages. In view of the economic, social, ecological and environmental conditions of poor households in different poverty-stricken areas, accurate identification of poverty, targeted pro-poor measures and corresponding funds have been adopted, to realize a one-family, one-policy approach to poverty alleviation, so as to basically eliminate absolute poverty in China by the end of 2020.
 
As of now, the number of poor people in rural areas has been reduced, and the incidence of poverty has continued to decline. The incidence of rural poverty has dropped from 10.2% in 2012 to 1.7% by the end of 2018. From 2013 to 2018, China exceeded its poverty reduction target of 10 million for six consecutive years, reducing the number of people living in poverty by 82.39 million. 
In addition, living conditions in poor areas have been improved, and so have the levels of education and medical care. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the per capita consumption expenditure of rural residents in poor areas was 7,331 yuan in 2016, with an average annual increase of 9.6% in real terms. Moreover, the consumption structure was significantly improved, with the proportion of expenditure on food and clothing declining.
 
At the same time, rural infrastructure conditions have also continued to improve. In poor areas, nearly all villages have access to electricity, 98.2% have access to phonelines, and 63.4% have access to broadband, while villages with public cultural spaces account for 86.5%, and those with clinics 91.4%.
 
To be sure, China has made a significant contribution to global poverty reduction. According to the World Bank, China’s poor population living on less than US$1.90 a day decreased by 850 million from 1981 to 2013, accounting for 69.3% of the global total. 
 
China has realized its goal of cutting the poverty-stricken population by half ahead of schedule, as listed in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, thus contributing greatly to the world’s poverty reduction efforts.
 
In particular, Chinese government at all levels along with a range of economic bodies have made many useful explorations into and contributions to the process of targeted poverty alleviation, especially in the industrial, relocation, education, employment, financial and health sectors. In terms of improving rural grassroots organization, collective economy, management level and administrative concepts, China has also accumulated a lot of first-hand experience. It can be said that the theoretical innovation and practical exploration of poverty alleviation in China has provided a Chinese example for global poverty governance.
 
 
New missions
The year 2020 will be the year to accomplish the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects and also the final year of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020). Though remarkable progress has been made in taking targeted measures against poverty, China still has deeply impoverished areas and groups and some special groups that need help to get rid of poverty. Therefore, going forward, the following aspects should become the focal points in poverty alleviation.
 
First, the marginal or vulnerable groups need extra help. In the long run, the current “two no-worries, three guarantees” standard of poverty alleviation work—no longer worrying about food and clothing, and guaranteeing compulsory education, basic medical treatment, and housing security, can only help poor households to escape poverty temporarily. When an external shock occurs such as illness and natural disaster, they are prone to falling back into poverty. 
 
In addition, there are many marginal households that are slightly above the poverty line but whose incomes and living conditions are not much different from those of the poor. Without accurate identification, they cannot enjoy the  targeted poverty alleviation they need, and there is a great possibility for them to slip back into poverty. Therefore, within the poverty alleviation effort, it is necessary to include marginal poverty-stricken households and to monitor and help the people returning to poverty and the newly impoverished.
 
Second, it is necessary to redefine poverty based on the goal of achieving basic modernization. The goal of modernization involves economic, social, political, cultural and ecological progress. From the perspective of multi-dimensional poverty, monetary poverty is reversible, whereas non-monetary poverty is usually not. Therefore, the concept of multi-dimensional poverty can provide more targeted and effective relief measures for the poor population. 
 
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, China has launched multi-round identification of the poor population. The next step should be to integrate high-quality education, health care and basic public services into poverty reduction criteria. For example, we want to make sure that all children from poor families receive higher quality basic education, so as to narrow the gap between urban and rural education.
 
Finally, targeting inequality and addressing relative poverty are key for future poverty reduction efforts. Different from absolute poverty, relative poverty can only be eased with the reduction of income inequality. Therefore, it is advisable to solve relative poverty along with the promotion of urban and rural overall planning. In the process, the government should strive to realize equitable access to basic public services, and it should prioritize policy and funding for deeply impoverished areas. The relative poverty in the original poor areas, especially in contiguous poor areas, will be better resolved through the diversified development of the rural collective economy with the aid of land system reform. “Industry + poverty alleviation” may just be the breakthrough needed to fundamentally increase farmers’ income.
 
Zhang Jianhua is a professor from the School of Economics at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
 
edited by YANG XUE